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Bread of Angels: Sermon for Maundy Thursday

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ May 21st, 2009

Bread of Angels:  Sermon on the Propers for Maundy Thursday

(after St. Thomas Aquinas)

Thus Angels’ Bread is made the Bread of man today.

The Living Bread from Heaven with figures dost away.

O wondrous gift indeed! The poor and lowly may upon their Master feed.

 If Martin Luther is the most prolific author in the Lutheran tradition and John Calvin in the Reformed tradition, then the Medieval theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, is probably the eminent writer of Western theology in the centuries before the Reformation. In addition to voluminous theological tomes, he composed five hymns on the Blessed Sacrament. Every one of them is a gem. Though not Lutheran in every article he taught, he had a high view of Sacrament, as the text before us this evening testifies. This hymn, especially st. 6, along with the propers for Maundy Thursday, will teach us to believe and receive the Lord’s Supper as the Bread of Angels.

“Thus Angels’ Bread is made the Bread of man today.” See how the author places heaven and earth alongside one another in this opening phrase: Angels’ bread and the bread of man come together in the Lord’s Supper. Angels’ bread, the very body of Christ, is joined to the simple bread of man, to make the Lord’s Supper. It reminds us of the incarnation, doesn’t it? Jesus came from heaven and took on our flesh and blood, giving us a “package deal” – God and man in one person, both in His incarnation and in the Sacrament. In our Epistle lesson this evening, St. Paul records the Words Instituting the Sacrament, which preach the reality of Angels’ bread and the bread of man. In contrast to the Roman Catholic teaching (body and blood, but no bread or wine), and in contrast to the Protestant teaching (bread and wine, but no body or blood) clearly proclaims body and blood, along with bread and wine. Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body.” He took the cup and said, “This is my blood.” And he commanded us to eat of the bread/body and drink of the cup/blood. Heaven is quite literally on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. Sinful man, who must till the ground to make his bread, is able to stand in God’s presence because of Jesus’ blood, once shed on the cross, and now offered in the Lord’s Supper in the union of angels’ bread and the bread of man.

The good news of the holy angels attending the Holy Eucharist is clear in the Communion liturgy, where we pray, “Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” The Biblical foundation here, of course, is Isaiah 6, where the angels led the temple liturgy, purified Isaiah with coal, and sang, “Holy, holy, holy.” However, we must also highlight the presence of angels in Hebrews 12[:22], where the author tells those who have gathered in the liturgy to receive the Sacrament, “[Y]ou have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering.” See how it all comes together in the Lord’s Supper! The angels are here, assisting in the liturgy, as sure as they attended our Lord at every important moment in His life, save the final moments of His death. The archangels are also here, announcing the good news in our liturgy that you have come to the New Jerusalem to stand in the presence of Christ and to receive His gifts. Yes, the whole company of heaven is here, extolling the Lamb slain yet raised from the dead to receive power and honor and glory and blessing, even as Angels’ bread is made the bread of man.

“The Living Bread from heaven with figures dost away.” Here we see that the OT figures or types of the Lord’s Supper have come to their fulfillment in Christ. The OT figures of the Lord’s Supper were preliminary sketches, recalling the artist who sketches a pencil outline of his painting on canvass before he paints it in full color. The OT, then, was a sketch. But the NT is the full-colored portrait of Christ and His Sacrament. Do you remember the OT sketches of the Lord’s Supper in its various bread-stories? The two most prominent are the manna in the wilderness and the bread of the Passover meal. However, to these we should add the following: Melchizedek blessed Abraham with bread and wine (Gen 14:18f.); the Lord declared His presence in the worship assembly through the Bread of the Presence (Ex. 25:30), twelve loaves placed near the north side of the OT sanctuary; and the angels provided bread and water to Elijah in the wilderness (I K 19:5-8). These were all figures or sketches that said God would dwell with His people through the giving of daily bread.

In the NT, Aquinas rightly says in this hymn that the figures are done. The underlying Latin word leaves no doubt that they are finished. There’s no need, for instance, to celebrate a Seder Meal, the modern attempt to repristinate the Passover meal. It was done as soon as Christ said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” When we eat the bread of the Lord’s Supper, we are receiving the fulfillment of all the OT types, the full-colored portrait of Christ, which leaves nothing left undone. It’s all here! One bite of this, the Bread of Life, is the entire feast of salvation.

No wonder this hymn calls it “the Living Bread from heaven.” The Biblical source of this phrase is, of course, the Bread of Life teaching in John 6. After the feeding of the 5,000, another sketch of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus made some promises to us that are not fulfilled by any earthly bread, but only in the Living Bread of the Sacrament. Listen to His contrast, for instance, between the OT sketch and the NT “color portrait”: “I am the bread of life. Your Fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (48-50). Moreover, Jesus promised, “I am the living bread that come down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (51). So not only is the NT the fulfillment of the OT, but it also stretches into eternity itself. Past, present, and future all come together in this meal: the OT types, the NT fulfillment, and the promise of the final resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

“O wondrous gift indeed! The poor and lowly may upon their Lord and Master feed.” See how our Lord and Master did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many! Tonight’s Gospel lesson presents Jesus’ service to us in a powerful object lesson. “Now before the Feast of the Passover,” i.e., before He gave His life into death as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet. According to the custom of the day, people either washed their own feet or delegated it to the lowest servant of the household. Behold! Our Lord and Master, Ruler of earth and sea, takes the lowest possible position! He must serve because He came to serve. They must be clean to be in His service, especially after his resurrection and ascension. And they must understand the word and sacrament as the gifts of their servant- Lord, not human inventions for personal gain. O wondrous gift indeed! The Lord serves by washing. He serves by dying. Then He rises from the dead and serves them His own body and blood.

And what do faithful disciples like you and me receive? The most wondrous gift of them all: the body and blood of Christ. Perhaps an analogy from daily living is in order. Every other food that we consume becomes a part of us. Earthly bread is consumed by the mouth, processed for nourishment, and incorporated into our body. The old saying, “You are what you eat” has some truth to it because what we eat becomes a part of us. But it’s different in the Lord’s Supper. Here, as someone said, “The wolf swallows the Lamb and the Lamb transforms the wolf.” In other words, wolves like us – dying creatures in this dying world – swallow the very Lamb of God and take Him into our very bodies. And He transforms us, so to speak, with three gifts mentioned in our Introit: “In Him is salvation, life, and resurrection from the dead.” Yes, in this Blessed Sacrament, there is salvation from eternal death, life in the midst of this dying world, and the promise of the final resurrection for these dying bodies. Here the poor, the lowly, and the beggars before God; here those who are baptized, instructed, and repentant, feed upon their Lord and Master. They are in Him and He is in them, even to eternal life.

Finally, the “Bread of Angels” hymn was originally written for the annual Feast of Corpus Christi (“The Body of Christ”). This annual festival, still observed by many Western Christians, is known for parading the Communion elements through city streets, along with a large crucifix. On the negative side, we reject the strong emphasis on the procession, when the primary focus should be on the eating and drinking. Christ said to eat His body, not to parade it through the city streets. But on the positive side, we appreciate the clear proclamation of the real presence of Jesus’ body in the Sacrament. From a Lutheran perspective, every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. For here we receive the Bread of Angels, the Bread of Life, and the Bread of the Lord who serves. As the hymn puts it, “Lord Jesus Christ, Thou living Bread, May I for mine possess Thee. I would with heavenly food be fed; Descend, refresh, and bless me. Now make me meet for Thee, O Lord; Now, humbly by my heart implored, Grant me Thy grace and mercy” (TLH 312.1). INJ. Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY

1 Response to Bread of Angels: Sermon for Maundy Thursday

  1. Shela Inverso

    That was a great piece of writing. I do not agree with every single thing that you said but still great nonetheless. On a side note, I am so thrilled that the NFL is back. It seems like I been patiently waiting forever. This has to be my favorite time of the year. Sorry, I’m rambling. lol

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